Rethinking school design for the future of learning

The design of a learning space can greatly impact students.

By U2B Staff 

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Conversations about the challenges facing any sector or industry today tend to revolve around the digital revolution and its many impacts.

From the work we do to the cities we live in, the changes wrought by technological advancements have been immense and intense both, upending old systems and traditions and leaving the laggards behind, sputtering in the dust.

Emerging from all the upheaval is the unavoidable truth that every entity large or small across every sector of every economy must face the prospect of transformation.

This means a lot more than buying new computers and upgrading IT infrastructure, or any other slapdash attempt at embracing change. True transformation involves a total structural and systems overhaul from the ground up, as well as the top down.

In education, a world where progress and excellence are often tied to tradition and convention, this could spell either one of two things: doom or opportunity.

But whichever you choose, the ubiquitous nature of technology has made it incumbent on governments and stakeholders everywhere to accept that change is imminent and the time to act was yesterday.

And if business processes from agriculture to medical, manufacturing to creative services and more are upgrading for the 21st century, then so too must education.

21st-century demands, 19th-century design

Consider the design of a typical classroom today: students, seated in neat rows and columns facing a teacher up front who tells them what to do and how to think.

classroom design
Today’s classrooms were designed in the 19th century. Source: Shutterstock

Are they really the most conducive for the delivery of the modern syllabi? What other skills, apart from technical knowledge, can such a structure impart on today’s students?

We already know what these skills must be; the World Economic Forum (WEF) says to survive an automated future, everyone must be equipped with soft skills like complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, and etc.

In the 21st century, technical skills are a must, and soft skills a necessary ‘plus’, giving graduates the edge they need to stand out in a sea of others with cookie-cutter degrees.

The problem is, the school and classroom design of today is a relic of the past; physical manifestations of 19th-century needs and expectations. Yet they remain in use in schools, colleges and universities everywhere, a reality very much at odds with the planet’s trajectory towards innovation and automation.

How could today’s learners, born over 120 years after the second industrial revolution, be expected to flourish in factory-model educational settings built to churn workers, rather than inspire creators?

One might question the correlation between school design and educational outcomes. But they are very much connected. And it’s more than simple conjecture.

In 2015, the Holistic Evidence and Design (HEAD) study in the UK found that a combination of environmental and design elements of school infrastructure can explain the 16 percent variation in primary students’ academic progress.

The research considered 153 classrooms in 27 schools and the performances of 3,766 pupils and found that the learning environment affects progress through three interrelated factors: naturalness (light, temperature, air quality); stimulation (colour, complexity) and individualisation (flexibility of the learning space).

The authors acknowledged this could present a series of challenges, budgetary or otherwise, to school architects and designers.

But they said it also reinforced arguments advocating sensory-sensitive designs or an “inside-out” approach to school and classroom design where the needs of the user are central to the process.

“It would seem,” they wrote, “that these aspects are more important than is often realised.”

The challenge

The problem, it seems, is that transforming education through the design of learning spaces requires more than just political will and stakeholder buy-in.

It needs both architects of school buildings and educational visionaries–global change agents capable of bringing together two very different, if intrinsically linked, worlds.

classroom design
Learning spaces should be designed around the needs of the learner. Source: EDI

But how many are experts of both?

Architects are hired to design and build new facilities, not to involve themselves in educational outcomes or school administration. Likewise, academics and education administrators don’t busy themselves with the nitty-gritty of building or classroom design.

This is why school and university infrastructure projects are often piecemeal affairs, with multiple teams working on different aspects of construction and very little effort being paid to ensuring the building is actually capable of improving student outcomes.

For this reason, Prakash Nair and his world-leading planning and design firm Education Design International(EDI), stands out from the crowd.

While others in the educational architecture space would design learning environments around client demands, Prakash would urge them to challenge old traditions and norms.

Why should learning be confined to classrooms only where creativity is limited and teaching is top-down, he would ask.

Why, when technology has spawned entirely new industries, created entirely new workforces and generated entirely new sets of talent needs, should today’s learning spaces still function and look the same as they did in the late 1800s?

These are hard questions to ask, and tougher still to answer. But as the demands of the creative and digital age bear down on today’s learners, Prakash believes they are necessary to spark the change the world of education desperately needs.

Learning by design

Only two groups of people in the world have no say in the design of their environments: students… and prisoners.

In keynote speeches, presentations and design consultations with learning communities around the world, Prakash would often present this fact. The classroom, he would say, is based on a “cells and bells” model, no different to the prison cell. Students would learn in cells and then adjourn to other cells when the bell tolls.

“In fact, you provide less square foot per student in a classroom than you provide a prisoner,” he’d once pointed out.

What if this is what’s holding today’s students back?

This is among the reasons why Prakash founded EDI.

A global leader in its field, EDI isn’t your typical education architectural services provider. Rather than just design learning spaces, EDI also helps its clients accomplish everything necessary to reform their entire schooling model.

More than just aesthetics and cost, design is built around the needs of the school curriculum so that learning spaces are directly contributing to student outcomes.

That EDI stands at the nexus of education and design is what sets it apart from competitors. In fact, in the world of educational architecture and educational planning, EDI is in a competition of one.

The driving force behind it is Prakash himself, and a philosophy that “task predicts performance”, which he says means a student’s learning environment contributes significantly to his or her academic progress.

He explores this idea in greater detail in Learning By Design, a book he recently co-authored with Roni Zimmer Doctori, EDI’s Senior Design Consultant, and Dr Richard Elmore, director of the Doctor in Educational Leadership program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He has also authored two other books, such as the landmark publication The Language of School Design, which is now in its 4th edition, and Blueprint for Tomorrow: Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning published by the Harvard Education Press.

What Prakash advocates, and that the HEAD study supports, is that rethinking the design of today’s learning spaces is the catalyst needed to transform education.

For Prakash, it is this transformation that’s the real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And while the work getting there will certainly be a journey of many, many miles, through EDI, it is clear he is off to a promising start.

Find out more about Prakash’s ideas and work in this U2B article here.

*Education Design International is a commercial partner of U2B.